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10 doorways to the joy of stories; SHORT FICTION

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If it's true, as argued here recently, that the art of short fiction is experiencing a renaissance, where would an unconvinced reader find the proof?

It's hard to go wrong with one of the annual anthologies -- such as "Best American Short Stories" or "Prize Stories: The O'Henry Awards" -- but the more exciting journey is to follow a story that moves you to a collection by its author.

These 10 stories are doorways to powerful collections.

Christopher Tilghman's "On the Rivershore" begins with 12-year-old Cecil Mayberry finding a dead man floating in a river on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Cecil knows how the man died; even worse, he knows he must tell someone. The story that unfolds when he does is as much about the Eastern Shore as it is about the characters involved.

Tilghman's understanding of how geography defines people is what distinguishes "In a Father's Place" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 214 pages, $18.95), seven stories set mostly around the Chesapeake Bay and in the American West. The title story, for example, is about a man named Nick who brings his fiancee to the family's ancestral home on the Eastern Shore. Unable to bear her snobbery, Nick's father kicks her out, and in so doing reaffirms what he values about that place.

"You're Ugly, Too," by Lorrie Moore, is about Zoe Hendricks, a history professor who believes that all men want is Heidi with cleavage. Zoe has just gotten the demoralizing news that her sister is getting married. She's at her sister's Halloween party, wearing a bone on her head, when she gets stuck talking to a man dressed in a body stocking adorned with rubber breasts and strategically-placed steel wool.

This mix of cynicism, sorrow and compassion for her characters infuses Moore's rewarding collection "Like Life" (Plume, 178 pages, $11.95). Another highlight is "Places to Look for your Mind," in which a young visitor's arrival reopens wounds an aging couple inflicted while raising their own children.

"Car Crash While Hitchhiking" is Denis Johnson's stark tale of a drug-addled afternoon on the road that ends in a deadly head-on collision. Johnson's narrator surveys the wreckage with a dispassion that sharpens the agony and deepens the insight. The story is from "Jesus' Son" (Harper Perennial, 160 pages $12), a collection narrated by a heroin addict.

It is an important work not only because Johnson is a poet, giving his stories a rare intensity and focus, but also because of the way he explores life's darker edges. Still, his stories are not without compassion. In "Dundun," when a man in an opium haze kills his friend, the narrator asks: "Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart?"

Jhumpa Lahiri is among a number of exciting new writers from other cultures. "The Third and Final Continent" is the story of a man who has moved to Boston, by way of Britain and India, as he struggles to adapt to America and find love in an arranged marriage.

Her debut collection, "Interpreter of Maladies" (Houghton Mifflin, 198 pages $12), is distinguished by elegant writing and wise stories. The title story is about a translator for an Indian doctor, a man who talks to patients in their native dialect and tells the physician what ails them. He takes a job on the side, driving a troubled American family around the country, and learns that it, too, involves being an interpreter of maladies.

Tobias Wolff is best known for his memoir "This Boy's Life," which is a shame because he has a masterful touch with short fiction. "Bullet in the Brain" is the story of a book critic so taken with his own sarcasm that he can't resist a smart-aleck remark that gets him shot. As the bullet does its work, he comes to understand one moment when life was pure.

The story is from "The Night in Question" (Vintage, 206 pages $12), a collection that display Wolff's gifts. He can inhabit any character -- a prep school boy, a soldier, a girl learning about sex from her stepmother -- and his stories build to endings that are surprising and often transcendent.

In "The Pugilist at Rest," Thom Jones explores the meaning of good and evil through one man's exploits as a boxer and soldier in Vietnam. What makes the story special, beyond the brutally honest writing, is that the journey is a philosophical one involving reflections on everything from Schopenhauer to the great gladiator Theogenes.

"Pugilist" is the title story of a collection (Little, Brown, 230 pages, $18.95) full of such frankness and insight. "Wipeout" examines the emotional fallout of a misogynist's sexual adventures, and "I Want To Live," takes readers on a woman's harrowing journey through the final stages of cancer.

Stuart Dybek's "Pet Milk" begins with the narrator watching condensed milk swirl in his coffee, evoking a reverie that sends him back: To afternoons with his grandmother, watching billowing clouds over the rail yards. To evenings with his girlfriend, watching creme de cacao explode in a drink known as a King Alphonse. And, finally, to the couple's last night together, watching passengers watch them during an unforgettable moment on a commuter train.

This story, like the others in "The Coast of Chicago" (Knopf, 173 pages), is lyrically written and freshly imagined, but what makes the collection distinctive its pacing. Some stories are no longer than poems ("Lights"); others are nearly novellas ("Chopin in Winter"). Sadly, this book is out of print, although it can still be had at Amazon.com (for $35 in my case).

It's fun to discover a little-known writer doing impressive work, someone like Jason Brown. His "Driving the Heart" is about a man who compensates for his agony and failures through devotion to his job transporting organs to hospitals. It is the title story of a collection (W.W. Norton, 224 pages, $23.95) by turns hilarious and desperate. In "Head On," four addicts get so stoned that they drive into a house -- and the party continues. In "Dog Lover," a lifetime of strain between a father and son is played out over whether their aging dog should be put down.

Every renaissance develops over time, and the short story's begins well before the 1990s, with the work of writers such as Raymond Carver and Alice Munro. Carver's "A Small, Good Thing" ranks with the best short fiction of any era. It is the story of a how a husband and wife endure the death of a child and come to understand that there are worse things than that loss.

The story is in "Where I'm Calling From" (Vintage, 526 pages, $14), which gathers together the late writer's best works.

Munro is still going strong, but my favorite story of hers remains an early one, "Walker Brothers Cowboy." It's about a girl who rides with her father on his route as a salesman for Walker Brothers household products. When he stops to visit an old girlfriend, his daughter discovers dimensions to her father she had never known.

The story is from "Dance of the Happy Shades" (Vintage, 224 pages, $12), a wonderful collection about growing up in Canada that moved writer Cynthia Ozick to say of Munro: "She is our Chekhov."

Stephen Proctor is The Sun's assistant managing editor for features. He recently completed a year's sabbatical as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, where he studied, among other things, the contemporary short story.

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